Michael Massaia’s nocturnal images present a uniquely poetic and pure body of work. The photographer’s hand-crafted images capture the quietude and isolation of the city during the hushed hours of the early morning by creating luminous, ethereal landscapes devoid of people. The parks, amusement rides and abandoned houses become dramatic sets waiting to be brought to life.
Massaia began his quiet walks at night in Central Park to relieve an ongoing insomnia, taking pictures of New York City during the walks between 2:00 A.M. and 5:00 A.M. Massaia’s interest in photography began in high school and though self-taught, his practice has grown into a superb craftsmanship that includes perfecting enlarging negatives, building his own cameras, and contact printing both silver and platinum photographs. Being raised in New Jersey and remaining in the New York City metro area, Massaia’s photography is based on locations close to the photographer’s upbringing. In Massaia’s photography, the most visited urban park in the United States, Central Park, becomes a fantastic landscape that shimmers in the half-light of the moon, with radiating pathways and mirror-like bodies of water. Iconic buildings become luminescent and appear alive, radiating light from within themselves while bridges and trees seem eerie and haunting.
Massaia’s single-minded objective vision compels him to control all aspects of his practice, allowing for his captivating images to be possible. Massaia is enamored with the medium and the potential expressive power of various photographic processes. The complex procedure of hand making platinum prints, demonstrate the photographer’s dedication and mastery of making extraordinary photography. Massaia prefers to shoot right before dawn, explaining:
“My favorite lighting is usually half hour before the sun rises, everything is kind of equally lit and it gives me a really blank palette to develop my film and when I’m making my print to kind of selectively dodge and burn it, the sun isn’t dictating where I want my shadows, I dictate that.”
The photographer dodges and burns his photos in the chemical development process to accentuate and diffuse the light captured in the negative, effectively painting with light. Massaia’s photographs have a magical quality that augments reality while presenting a recognizable still-life. His images have a storytelling potential, akin to a hauntingly beautiful dream sequence. The chemistry and paper used in order to produce the final photographs have an organic quality that surpasses digital photography, creating a fantastic image that nevertheless feels palpable and intimate.
Massaia intentionally uses bridges and tunnels in several of his images. In the photographs, the center of field is in tight focus while the periphery of the image begins to fade out, mimicking the physiology of how the eye sees at night. A symptom of acute sleep deprivation is called “tunnel-vision”, where a constricted field of vision restricts peripheral vision. As Massaia perambulates through parks and amusement rides, he finds solace in the structures of nature and the deserted arabesque like environment.
Massaia does not shoot in the day, when most people are present, but works in a solitary meditative state, constantly pushing himself to master his photographic observations, compositions, and the demanding process of his large-format picture making.
“Black and white large format film has a quality, an organic quality, a dimension that is so superior to anything that can be done digitally. I use view cameras and monorail view cameras, and field cameras and it gets me closer to what I’m imagining. All those cameras have perspective controls, and all these things that can really, you can really hone in exactly what your envisioning. When you use a large-format camera the process of setting it up and envisioning the picture and matching kind of what you are seeing, it’s a thoughtful process, it’s thoughtful, and it’s hard; it’s a difficult process, and to me that validates it.”
Through the desolate landscapes and eerie realism in the pictures, Michale Massaia’s “oeuvre” presents the quiet solitude of the night. Reminiscent of Edward Steichen’s pictures of nocturnal New York or Eugene Atget’s dramatic recording of early morning Paris, Massaia’s crepuscular scenes hold individual moments close while working to disconnect spaces from our previous associations. He creates new possibilities for imagining the city. The work’s eerie tranquility give respite to the spirit and helps overcome the cacophony of the city.
“After all the thousands of prints I’ve made, I still find it exciting finishing an uncompromised print and knowing that I’m the only person that was involved in its creation.”